When Judge Dawn Bergin received her first official gavel Friday afternoon in Phoenix, she became one of 15 new judges to join Maricopa County Superior Court since last fall. Judges say the turnover is the highest in the court’s history.
“This year — 2007 — it’s been unprecedented,” said Michael Ryan, Arizona Supreme Court justice and acting chairman of the Maricopa County Commission on Trial Court Appointments.
“I remember years when nobody left,” said former Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein, who retired this year after almost 22 years on the bench.
Some vacancies were created when the county approved new judgeships to keep pace with the growing population, said Doug Cole, one of the nominating commission’s 15 members. Reinstein said approximately 50 judgeships have been created since his appointment in 1985, bringing the total to 95.
But most positions opened because of retirements. Since January, 13 judges have retired. Cole said this year’s pay raise is thought to be the inspiration, because retirement packages are based on salaries at the time of retirement.
The turnover left the nominating commission scrambling to find candidates. According to the state constitution, the commission must select at least three nominees for each vacancy to submit to the governor. Although the commission first considers merit, each list must include representatives from more than one political party, and gender and racial diversity are priorities.
In June, the commission had eight vacancies to fill from a list of 65 applicants.
Cole said those specifications left the commission with a “mathematical conundrum.” Ultimately, they selected eight Republicans and eight Democrats, divided them into lists of four, each with two Republicans and two Democrats, and forwarded the lists to the governor. Preparing the lists of nominees was a time-intensive feat, especially considering that the members of the commission — 10 members of the public and five attorneys — are volunteers.
“This commission has done an unbelievable amount of work in the past year,” Ryan said.
He said part of the workload, unlike other years, has included active recruiting. He said the commission goes into the community, encourages applicants and describes what the judicial system is looking for.
“It’s important that they have significant experience and it’s important, but not essential, that they have fairly excessive trial experience or at least experience in court,” Ryan said.
Cole said he looks for judicial demeanor and community involvement.
“I’m looking for a well-rounded individual,” Cole said.
He said that’s especially important because judges are rotated every few years among criminal, civil, juvenile, family and probate courts.
Though the commission selects the nominees, the public is involved in the process at every turn. Cole said he spends many hours listening to phone messages, fielding phone calls and reading letters and e-mails as he considers his choices. All of the commission’s meetings are public, he said, and a new Web site will help residents participate.
Judge Sam Thumma, who joined juvenile court in May, calculates that about 280 years’ worth of experience is leaving the court system.
The new judges who previously served as court commissioners had easier transitions, Ryan said. But mostly, the new judges simply have to play catch-up.
“The people who have gotten appointed are very smart, educated, quick learners, have experience in court and can get up to speed pretty quickly,” Ryan said.
To aid the learning process, former judges have returned to share their knowledge and sometimes pick up part of the caseload. Every new judge participated in a two-week intensive training program. They’ve shadowed experienced judges, studied on their own time and asked questions.
At Bergin’s investiture ceremony Friday, she spoke of the challenges of getting appointed and learning the job. But she glowed as she thanked the people who helped her get appointed. “This is my dream job, really,” she said.